Last week I wrote an interesting interview for the Dorset Writers Network, an Arts Council England and Dorset Community funded organisation that supports writers in Dorset county in the U.K.
Unlike other interviews, the DWN asked me questions about how I write (the process) and wanted to know whether I would write novels set in Dorset in future.
In ‘The Disobedient Wife’ I have actually made Dorset a refuge for one of the main characters, her childhood home. It made sense that this woman would run to Dorset in times of emotional difficulty. I am lucky to come from such a beautiful part of the U.K, a place where so many creative people live, inspired by the natural landscape.
The interview published on their website can be found here.
Further information on the Dorset Writers Network can be found here.
As I sit down this weekend I am taking stock of the coming week in the UK, a week when I will be launching my debut novel in three venues, speaking on two radio stations and traveling to my hometown to promote my debut novel.
I am frightened of negative reactions to the book but I soothe my fears with Cisneros’ proposition that books are our medicine. Not every book suits everyone, just as not all prescriptions will cure our ills. I even find that depending on the mood I am in, I can feel like reading a certain book or not. In times of stress I enjoy soft yoga classes but in happier times I would rather go for an exhilerating run with my dog. And just as readers are free to read my book (or not!) I, as a writer, am free to write.
This week I will be thanking my fate, the luck that led to my being born and bred in Britain. In the U.K, creativity is still nurtured. Fantastic art organizations like The Dorset Writer’s Network and Artsreach are funded to support writers so that people like me have the chance to share their books with others. Organisations like my publisher, Cinnamon Press are supported to publish innovative fiction. Without this support to small independent press houses, most of the most interesting creative writing in the UK at the moment would never be seen by the general public.
I also love the U.K because it is a place where free expression is closely guarded and protected. I feel privileged that unlike aspiring writers from Tajikistan, I can write my stories without fear of imprisonment or exile. This will be uppermost in my mind as I attend events hosted by my Publisher and by local people with bookshops in my home county, Dorset. The Disobedient Wife is the first Literary Fiction to come from Modern-day Tajikistan in decades, not because there are no local writers, but because they are not allowed to write or publish freely. I remind myself daily to be grateful at what is no more than luck. The luck to be born in a place where I can express myself without fear for my life or for the lives of my loved ones.
During the week I work part time with refugee men at a day centre in Rome, trying to find them jobs, no easy task in this city. People often ask why migrants come to Italy without prospects of work, with hard-earned qualifications and degrees that will never count in Europe. Sometimes, they left much better material lives in their home country. I met a civil engineer from Pakistan last week and asked him why he had left a relatively good job as a land surveyor in Islamabad. He frowned and raised his hands in a gesture of despair tinged with disdain. He clearly felt that my question was inane.
“I cannot continue to live there, where I am from”, he said. “I come from the Tribal areas under Taliban control and have no freedom.”
“But you worked in Islamabad, I said. He shook his head.
“It does not matter, they reached me.”
He was angry, his fury at the politics of his homeland and frustration at the penury of his present circumstances oozing from every pore.
“I did not know I would be homeless and jobless here,” he said. “But I still want to stay here, in a country where I do not fear for my life.”
I thought about the price he had paid for his freedom. It is the same for Eritreans, Afghans and other refugees, many highly qualified accountants, office managers, logisticians and engineers now looking for jobs in Rome as kitchenhands, cleaners and carers; the most menial work; the work that locals do not want to do. Undoubtedly, their life savings line the pockets of human traffickers, the schooling that their parents scrimped and saved for, wasted. It is the price they pay for the freedom we Europeans take for granted.
Just after I finished this article I heard of the arrest of Hossam Bahgat, a well known journalist in Egypt, detained for his writing. I hope he is released soon.
I am happy to report that Inpress Books have published an interview about ‘The Disobedient Wife’ on their website. The questions focused on my academic and working influences: how social anthropology/ research shapes my writing of fiction. Please click on the link below to read it:
I nearly called the book ‘A Tale of Tajik Flowers’ and named several drafts with this title. Yes, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ is a much better title and I am glad I changed it. But why flowers?
When I lived in Tajikistan I was delighted to notice that many women’s names are also the names of flowers. My landlord was an elderly civil engineer, as fond of Soviet era machinery as he was of roses. He insisted that Tajikistan was where the rose – Sad Bagh originated. In my garden, I was lucky enough to enjoy the garden he had lovingly planted. Cultivated to bloom from May to November, we had climbers and ornamental, sweet scented roses. I dried their petals and put them in bowls. On weekends, and when it was warm enough out, I reclined on a tea platform (Tapshan), shaded by hundreds of delicate pink and red climbing roses. We had purple lilac trees, daffodils and tulips as well as fruit and nut trees and vines that gave us fruit almost all year round (quince, plum, cherries (3 types), apples, pear, grapes, walnuts, pomegranate, fig, mulberries, strawberries). We even had one tree that gave us half sour cherries and half sweet. The variegated irises were a sight to behold each May, deep burgundy, indigo and yellow, growing on half shaded bank above the ditches that ran around the lawn. There was a cracked greenhouse without a roof where I grew Italian and purple basil that grew to two metres, yellow tomatoes and rows of lettuce and rocket.
We had guards who asked me for use of land in return for digging and watering, of course I readily agreed. One of them, a burly, friendly man, accompanied me three days in a row to help me lift rocks from the riverbed into the boot of my car. They were pink, green, purple and white, smoothed down by the rushing water, like huge marbles. I used them to line borders and made a rocky mosaic around huge clumps of day lilies and michelmas daisies. My predecessor had planted long lines of daffodils and laid new lawns with dutch grass seed for her pony. I brought tulips to Dushanbe in a suitcase when I saw a magnificent display in one of the guesthouses popular with World Bank consultants one spring.
The city of Dushanbe is not a place where one finds great natural beauty, aside from the tall sycamore trees that line old Soviet avenues. The buildings are mostly Soviet-era, decrepit and ugly. The pavements are grey and cracked, lined with ditches that run with grey mud and dancing refuse. The winters are grey and the winds bite, the only flash of colour; the orange fruit of the persimmon tree. The harshness of the winter months is why Tajiks welcome spring with such joy. They celebrate with the ancient Zoroastrian festival Nav Ruz. Green shoots of wheat are made into a soup, cherry trees blossom and glittering, mono-browed brides go out with their dark-suited boys with slicked back hair. Live bands play in the park.
As I learned the Tajik language, I found it sweet that so many girls are named after the most beautiful aspect of Central Asian nature, the flowers.
I am working on my second novel now, with a working title: Refugee Queen.
This book is set in Eastern Africa and Europe (the UK and Italy) and centres on the journey of survival/ coming of age of a multi-ethnic refugee girl. As with the first, it is an international novel, set in several countries. It’s more ambitious than The Disobedient Wife as I change setting and characters frequently. She escapes civil war, then sexual bondage to a pimp in Nairobi. Later she has to survive life in the camp, a refugee ‘haven’ where her life is in danger. She is another survivor who prevails; the kind of person I love to write about.
As with the first book, I had to think long and hard about the nationality of the person with which the protagonist has her main relationship. In the Disobedient Wife, I chose to make the husband of my British Expatriate character Belgian. Partly because I adore the french language, but also because I wanted him to have certain turns of phrase and personality traits suitable to the misogyny of an older husband with a trophy wife: A masculine, sexy Poirot, if you will.
In this second book, I was initially attracted to the idea that the main love interest for the girl should be a fellow exile: Rootless and unable to return to his country, either through fear or because of a deep sense of mistrust in his homeland. I imagined him as an Iranian Communist, a person with a deep sense of lacking, who misses the sights and smells of a childhood gone forever because the Iran of the 1960s and 70s has ceased to be.
I wrote the passages of their courtship but realised the idea of an Iranian man in a position of authority, however well traveled and educated, falling in love with a woman like her, was rare to the point of unrealistic (or vice versa). I searched my memory to think of a single example of a Persian-African couple in my many years abroad. I do not why it is so rare, whether it is cultural barriers or not. I work with West African men and Afghan/ Pakistani/ Iranian men at a refugee centre in Rome. They rarely mix as friends, even though they have much in common: English/ Italian as a communicating language; religion (many of the West Africans are Muslim); and, their present situation and living conditions as migrants in Italy. Even with so many things in common, disagreements and misunderstandings are a daily reality and we employ ‘peacemakers’ to negotiate the cultural divide. I noticed this in the classroom too, as clear as a bass relief. Yet Iran does, in fact, have an African origin community of Afro-Iranians, the descendants of Zanj slaves brought to Persia to do domestic labour from Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. I could not think of a single example of such a couple from all my years working in the region however, so it simply made no sense to me. Write what you know, or at least, what you have experienced.
Instead, I have made him a Southern Italian, with an Iranian, Communist revolutionary ex-wife. I think that many Italian men in authority would risk all for love, they are romantic, they like to bend the rules, as though they are only there for the bending. So no, he is not himself an exile, nor does he suffer the great Lack that I described, but it is enough that he understands the dilemma of exile, rather as I do, married to a Bosnian for nearly twenty years. An Italian-Rwandan marriage makes perfect sense in my mind. Most Italian men adore beautiful dark women and treat them reverently, like living Goddesses, though of course, this can take the form of sexual harassment at times, especially as there are many trafficked Nigerian girls lining the streets of Rome’s outskirts. I know many happy interracial couples here and I see examples before me every day.
Perhaps it is a cop out, to accept the negative aspects of a reality many would rather gloss over and then to change my characters to fit. Making realistic decisions about ‘my people’ is important to me as a writer though. They are mine to make as they are my creation, but still, I agonize over the detail. I have no political motives with my writing, I just want a good story. The way I figure it, someone else with greater knowledge than mine can explore the Iranian-African love affair. I need it to make sense, to have continuity, and though the characters are all figments of an overactive imagination, my readers need to believe in them as much as I do.